The Colour Purple

These flowers remind me of an interesting story which takes me all the way to Hong Kong. The flag of this beautiful country bears an equally charming five-petalled flower of a native tree, Bauhinia blakeana, also known as the Hong Kong Orchid Tree (though it’s not an orchid but actually a leguminous tree).

The story goes that in 1880 a missionary, while out hiking in the forests, found a tree bearing purple flowers and took a cutting to plant back home. He grafted this cutting onto another plant, the hybrid of which gave beautiful purplish-red flowers. It is believed that all the Hong Kong Orchid Trees alive today on the island and elsewhere in the world are descendants of that one hybrid plant – genetically identical or clones!

Modern scientists who studied this mysterious tree found that it was a sterile hybrid, incapable of reproducing by forming fruits and seeds. Only human interference through cutting, grafting or layering would help propagate it. Further studies revealed that the tree was actually a hybrid of two species – the Bauhinia variegata (Purple Orchid Tree) and the Bauhinia purpurea (Orchid Tree, Purple Butterfly Tree).

Though Bauhinia purpurea and Bauhinia variegata are quite similar in appearance, there are quite a few morphological features of distinction. Since both trees are in full bloom at this time of the year, the best way to distinguish between the two is that Bauhinia purpurea flowers bear only three fertile stamens, while Bauhinia variegata has five. So I guess you have identified the flowers in the photo here!

– Narendra Nayak © 2018

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